June 02, 2010

Students hit high notes with their jazz

Posted: June 02, 2010

Jeremy Lappitt, Christopher Peña and Steven Limpert have recently won Student Music Awards for their jazz. Download image

Jeremy Lappitt will be the first to admit he has a really “Mickey Mouse” job this summer.

Actually, Lappitt has landed an enviable spot for his between-semester toils: Disneyland.

Lappitt, who will be a senior at ASU next year, won the position of lead alto saxophone in the 2010 Disney All-American College Band, which will perform with five shows a day, five days a week from June to mid-August.

Lappitt also has another feather in his cap. He and two other ASU jazz studies students in the Herberger Institute School of Music – Christopher Peña and Steven Limpert – each won a Student Music Award this spring from DownBeat magazine.

Their names, and those of the other collegiate winners, will appear in the June issue of the magazine’s list of winners in the 33rd Annual Student Music Awards. Categories included jazz soloist, big band, crossover, Latin jazz ensemble, original song and engineered live recording.

DownBeat magazine is one of the most respected jazz publications in the country, and its annual student awards are among the most coveted in jazz education,” said Michael Kocour, director of ASU’s jazz studies program in the Herberger Institute School of Music.

Peña, who also will be a senior next year, and Lappitt won their awards for their collaborative arrangement of Bebel Gilberto’s “Um Segundo.”

Limpert, a senior in the electrical engineering program in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering who participates in jazz studies coursework, won in the blues/pop/rock soloist category for his work on recordings he co-produced with guitarist and recent ASU music composition graduate Kevan Nymeyer.

Entries were judged on musicianship, creativity, improvisation, technique, sound quality and balance, excitement, authority and other criteria. The panel of judges included the DownBeat editors, professional musicians and educators, according to Kocour.

That ASU students won so many awards is a testimony to the quality of ASU’s small but lauded jazz program, Kocour added.

“We have 30 jazz studies majors, and about 75 students who participate in the program. We have a fantastic faculty to have three students getting awards," Kocour said.

For parents who worry that their offspring who graduate with a degree in jazz won’t be able to make a living, Kocour has comforting words.

“A student who graduates with a degree in jazz studies can look forward, most likely, to a ‘freelance’ career – performing and teaching,” he said.

“If they play well and develop skills as a performer and composer they will always have people who want to study with them. Realizing their potential as creative artists will help them help others.”

The prospect of earning a living with a degree in jazz studies is “the same for anyone getting a degree in the arts. Education prepares our students for many pathways. Jazz is no different in the regard,” Kocour said.

All three of the Student Music Award winners are already busy with music careers.

Lappitt, from Tucson, has won a School of Music Special Talent Award scholarship and an ASU JazzBird scholarship. He performs across Arizona with such groups as Tempe's ska sensation Two-Tone Lizard Kings, and Tucson's premiere salsa band Descarga. Lappitt freelances regularly, playing for many corporate events hosted in the Valley. While performing with Two-Tone Lizard Kings, he has shared the stage with headliners such as Authority Zero, The Toasters, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and The English Beat, to name a few.

Peña, a pianist and also from Tucson, has received the Provost Scholarship and an ASU JazzBird Scholarship. He has performed with various groups at such venues as Tempe Center for The Arts, Scottsdale Center For The Performing Arts, and Bobby C's. He also was in groups that played for the grand reopening of the Phoenix Art Museum and the grand openings of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and the Sandra Day O' Connor House. His “hobby” is playing the Hammond B3 organ.

Limpert, a native of West Chester, Pa., performs on trumpet regularly with The Bad Cactus Brass Band, Black Carl, The Hot Birds and The Chili Sauce, and the ASU Concert Jazz Band. Limpert is a regular at live performances and studio recordings throughout Phoenix, and has released a CD with his band, haploid 23. (You can hear recordings of them and other musical projects by Limpert at www.stevelimpert.com.)

Jazz great Louis Armstrong is said to have claimed that jazz can’t be explained, saying, “Man, if you gotta ask you'll never know.”

So if jazz can’t be described, as Armstrong believed, how do professors teach students how to “play” jazz?

Kocour said learning to play jazz is like learning a foreign language.

“Jazz musicians must read, play and remember songs. When I’m recruiting students I ask them, ‘What tunes do you know,’ and ‘Can you play a tune in any key?’ Jazz is a language, and we have a model for training our students," he said.

In a small class with around six students, for example, Kocour teaches “ear training” by playing a recording of a song, then asking the students to write down parts for their classmates to play the next class period. As difficult as it sounds, the students come back with the music in hand, ready to distribute.

The students likely will not have written down the music exactly as they heard it, Kocour said, because there’s room for interpretation in jazz. “Classical music is recitation, but jazz is a conversation,” he explained.

ASU’s jazz program has been in existence for 30 years, and Kocour said that because it is small, it is a “family” of students and teachers.

Keith Kelly, a faculty associate in jazz studies and doctoral student, added, “Being a close knit department comes from the faculty and students playing a lot of music together, therefore developing a respect and appreciation for different artistic viewpoints.

“This leads to a department where we speak the truth to one another; we are interested in creating a space where all ideas can be shared and we can discuss the merits of each. This creates a very supportive environment, one in which we have a shared interest in the success of each other – and show our support through concert attendance, both inside and outside of school.”

So why do ASU’s winning students like to play jazz?

Peña said a love of melody and lyricism was instilled in him as he grew up listening to baroque, classical and romantic music. But when he happened to attend a program sponsored by the Tucson Jazz Institute, his life was changed forever.

“I fell in love with America's first form of intellectual improvisatory music, which is jazz," he said. "The way Louis Armstrong can sweep the heart with soaring melodies while at the same time swinging so hard had such a powerful affect on me. On another side, John Coltrane appeals to me just because of the nature of my curiosity. Coltrane seemed to have insatiable desire for finding every last way to express what he felt through music.”

Limpert, who began playing the trumpet in third grade, became interested in jazz music when his grandparents gave him some Swing era (1930-1940s) greatest hits CDs soon after he started his music lessons. By the time he was in high school he had learned a lot more about jazz and started gathering fellow musicians to play jazz.

“I enjoy playing jazz because of the expressive freedom and interpretive room inherent to the music,” he said. “Jazz is often very structured music, but built into that structure is space for the performers to make their own statements and carve through the music in their own way.”

Lappitt said he began improvising when he was in high school, and “it always felt like something that came naturally to me. As I've matured as a musician, my improvisation techniques have matured as well. Listening to the jazz greats is what really got me interested in jazz – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis to name a few.”

“Jazz,” he said “is a limitless music that has so much to offer.”

Judith Smith, jps@asu.edu
Media Relations